Archive for the ‘favorites’ Category

…That awkward moment when you realize near the end of June that you never actually posted the review of 2014 music that you wrote in early January. Anyway, here it is now.

2014 in music was for me a year with a large number of really good albums, but no indisputable standout. After my thorough (some might say weirdly compulsive) process of rating each song individually (all 866 of them) and combining my song ratings with listening counts, I narrowed the 75 albums I bought in 2014 down to a top 25. The top spot was up for grabs among the top three until literally the last moment and the winning margin (101.08 to 101.00) was microscopic. Kris Delmhorst richly deserves her hard-fought win over Spoon and Sharon Van Etten and I’m particularly happy to recognize a local Massachusetts musician who’s operating very much under the radar — for example, NPR Music’s end of year poll let listeners pick from a list of 500 albums, but Delmhorst’s wasn’t one of them. Still I was happy to see both Spoon and SVE place highly, at #7 and #11.

Here is my top 25:

  1. Kris Delmhorst – Blood Test
  2. Spoon – They Want My Soul
  3. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
  4. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  5. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
  6. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
  7. Bishop Allen – Lights Out
  8. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
  9. Shovels & Rope – Swimmin’ Time
  10. PHOX – PHOX
  11. Lulu Mae – Mean River
  12. Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean
  13. Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
  14. Saintseneca – Dark Arc
  15. Luluc – Passerby
  16. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
  17. Haley Bonar – Last War
  18. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
  19. Woods – With Light and with Love
  20. Tiny Ruins – Brightly Painted One
  21. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
  22. Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife
  23. Elizabeth & The Catapult – Like It Never Happened
  24. Hospitality – Trouble
  25. Kat Edmonson – The Big Picture

Notes and highlights

1. Kris Delmhorst

This one slowly sneaked up on me. Sure, I enjoyed it from the beginning, but it took me a while to recognize its greatness. A folk/Americana-ish singer-songwriter who is about a half-dozen albums into her career and who writes and performs solid songs that grow on you — the 2014 music environment may not be suited for someone like this to become a superstar, but I like her stuff a lot.

92nd St is a great example of her work. It starts quiet and gradually builds into something much bigger and bolder – “You said there ain’t no real mistakes”

2. Spoon

These indie-rock heroes just keep producing solid music that combines enjoyable pop hooks with just enough musical exploration to keep it interesting. I found this to be a superb listen on my morning or evening commute and never tired of it.

3. Sharon Van Etten

I dearly love Sharon Van Etten and this album is a high-water mark of her career. Her last album, Tramp, spotlighted her evolution from confessional singer-songwriter to leader of an actual rock band. Here, she takes a half-step back — the band is still there, yet her voice is in the spotlight again.

4. Conor Oberst

Oberst’s band, Bright Eyes, produced my favorite album of 2011, The People’s Key, and he made a strong challenge to repeat as a solo artist. I love the passion and urgency he brings to his songs.

Here he performs Zigzagging Toward The Light live on KEXP, singing about the imperfect journey of life — “Zigzagging toward the light, I’m off to sing my bounder song”

5. Sylvan Esso

What do you get when you pair a singer from an a cappella folk trio with an electronic instrumentalist mostly associated with hip-hop? You get a really catchy album that I enjoyed every time I put it on.

There are dozens of live videos of Sylvan Esso showing how much they seem to enjoy making music. Here’s one of them performing Coffee.

6. Angel Olsen

At times intense and loud, at other times intense and quiet, Angel Olsen produced a deep and introspective album, sort of like something that Sharon Van Etten’s punkier younger sister would come up with.

7. Bishop Allen

It feels like every year, my best of the year list needs at least one light as a feather indie band from Brooklyn. This year, it’s Bishop Allen. Just enjoyable music with lots of pop hooks.

8. Lake Street Dive and 10. PHOX

Both of these bands show the great things that can happen when a singer with a knockout voice finds a group of musicians that she can connect with. Both are early in their careers, so I look forward to lots more from them.

Bad Self Portraits is the title track of Lake Street Dive’s album and it’s a great showcase for Rachael Price’s powerful voice. Just amazing!

PHOX’s Noble Heart is simply a terrific song that includes a kitchen sink’s worth of musical motifs, from solo piano to guitar power chords to a crescendo highlighted by a trumpet solo — all in a little over 5 minutes, starting with some comments from singer Monica Martin.

9. Shovels and Rope

The winner of my annual “Country Music For People Who Don’t Like Country Music” (CMFPWDLCM) Award. Great rollicking Americana music from a husband and wife duo.

And the upside of not posting my 2014 in review until June 2015 is that they’ve now produced a video for my favorite song on the album, Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan.

15. Luluc and 20. Tiny Ruins

A couple artists a little further down my list and I couldn’t help including here. Luluc and Tiny Ruins are incredibly similar — they each produce quiet music with delicate female vocals. OK, Luluc are a duo from Australia (though lately based in New York) and Tiny Ruins is a solo artist named Hollie Fullbrook from New Zealand.

Luluc plays Small Window

Tiny Ruins plays Me At The Museum, You In The Wintergardens live in Melbourne – “Nobody feels old at the museum/Nobody feels cold in the wintergardens”

My full list of five-star songs

  • Ages And Ages – Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)Divisionary
  • Angel Olsen – Forgiven/ForgottenBurn Your Fire For No Witness
  • Angel Olsen – White FireBurn Your Fire For No Witness
  • Angel Olsen – High & WildBurn Your Fire For No Witness
  • Angel Olsen – Lights OutBurn Your Fire For No Witness
  • Beck – MorningMorning Phase
  • Beck – Heart Is A DrumMorning Phase
  • Beck – Blackbird ChainMorning Phase
  • Bishop Allen – Start AgainLights Out
  • Bishop Allen – CrowsLights Out
  • Bishop Allen – Skeleton KeyLights Out
  • Bishop Allen – No ConditionsLights Out
  • The Black Keys – FeverTurn Blue
  • The Black Keys – Gotta Get AwayTurn Blue
  • The Both – MilwaukeeThe Both
  • Conor Oberst – Time ForgotUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – Zigzagging Toward The LightUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – Hundreds Of WaysUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – Enola GayUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – You Are Your Mother’s ChildUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – Desert Island QuestionnaireUpside Down Mountain
  • Conor Oberst – Common KnowledgeUpside Down Mountain
  • Damien Jurado – Jericho RoadBrothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
  • Damien Jurado – Silver DonnaBrothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
  • Drive-By Truckers – Natural LightEnglish Oceans
  • Eleni Mandell – Put My Baby To BedLet’s Fly A Kite
  • Eleni Mandell – Like Dreamers DoLet’s Fly A Kite
  • Elin Ruth – The PainQueen of Queens & the Last Man Standing
  • Elizabeth & The Catapult – ShoelacesLike It Never Happened
  • Elizabeth & The Catapult – Last OpusLike It Never Happened
  • The Family Crest – Beneath the BrineBeneath The Brine
  • The Family Crest – HowlBeneath The Brine
  • The Family Crest – She Knows My NameBeneath The Brine
  • First Aid Kit – My Silver LiningStay Gold
  • First Aid Kit – Stay GoldStay Gold
  • Foxygen – How Can You Really…and Star Power
  • Frazey Ford – September FieldsIndian Ocean
  • Frazey Ford – DoneIndian Ocean
  • Frazey Ford – Natural LawIndian Ocean
  • Frontier Ruckus – Little HenriettaSitcom Afterlife
  • Haley Bonar – Kill the FunLast War
  • Haley Bonar – Woke up in My FutureLast War
  • Hospitality – Going OutTrouble
  • Hospitality – Last WordsTrouble
  • Imogen Heap – Minds Without FearSparks
  • Jenny Lewis – Late BloomerThe Voyager
  • Jessica Lea Mayfield – Do I Have The TimeMake My Head Sing…
  • Jessica Lea Mayfield – Seein* StarzMake My Head Sing…
  • Joe Henry – SparrowInvisible Hour
  • Joe Henry – Grave AngelsInvisible Hour
  • Joe Henry – PlainspeakInvisible Hour
  • Justin Townes Earle – White GardeniasSingle Mothers
  • Justin Townes Earle – Burning PicturesSingle Mothers
  • Kat Edmonson – Rainy Day WomanThe Big Picture
  • Kat Edmonson – Oh My LoveThe Big Picture
  • Kat Edmonson – AvionThe Big Picture
  • Kishi Bashi – Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!Lighght
  • Kishi Bashi – The Ballad of Mr. SteakLighght
  • Kris Delmhorst – HomelessBlood Test
  • Kris Delmhorst – 92nd StBlood Test
  • Kris Delmhorst – We DeliverBlood Test
  • Kris Delmhorst – HushabyeBlood Test
  • Kris Delmhorst – My OhioBlood Test
  • Kris Delmhorst – LighthouseBlood Test
  • Lake Street Dive – Bad Self PortraitsBad Self Portraits
  • Lake Street Dive – You Go Down SmoothBad Self Portraits
  • Lake Street Dive – Just AskBad Self Portraits
  • Lake Street Dive – SeventeenBad Self Portraits
  • Lost In The Trees – Past LifePast Life
  • Lulu Mae – The One We Do TogetherMean River
  • Lulu Mae – Throwin’ PunchesMean River
  • Luluc – Small WindowPasserby
  • Luluc – Without a FacePasserby
  • Luluc – PasserbyPasserby
  • Luluc – Reverie on Norfolk StreetPasserby
  • Natalie Merchant – Go Down MosesNatalie Merchant
  • Natalie Merchant – It’s A-ComingNatalie Merchant
  • The New Pornographers – Champions of Red WineBrill Bruisers
  • The New Pornographers – War On the East CoastBrill Bruisers
  • The New Pornographers – Born With a SoundBrill Bruisers
  • Nickel Creek – DestinationA Dotted Line
  • Nickel Creek – 21st of MayA Dotted Line
  • Nickel Creek – Elephant in the CornA Dotted Line
  • Nickel Creek – You Don’t Know What’s Going OnA Dotted Line
  • The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – EurydiceDays Of Abandon
  • PHOX – 1936PHOX
  • PHOX – Shrinking VioletsPHOX
  • PHOX – Noble HeartPHOX
  • Quantic – Descarga CúanticaMagnetica
  • Quantic – Sol ClapMagnetica
  • Quilt – Arctic SharkHeld in Splendor
  • Quilt – Tired & ButteredHeld in Splendor
  • Saintseneca – Blood BathDark Arc
  • Saintseneca – Only The Young Die GoodDark Arc
  • Saintseneca – TakmitDark Arc
  • Saintseneca – VisionsDark Arc
  • Sean Rowe – Shine My Diamond RingMadman
  • Sean Rowe – DesireeMadman
  • Sharon Van Etten – TarifaAre We There
  • Sharon Van Etten – I Love You But I’m LostAre We There
  • Sharon Van Etten – You Know Me WellAre We There
  • Sharon Van Etten – Every Time the Sun Comes UpAre We There
  • Shovels & Rope – The Devil Is All AroundSwimmin’ Time
  • Shovels & Rope – Bridge On FireSwimmin’ Time
  • Shovels & Rope – Coping MechanismSwimmin’ Time
  • Shovels & Rope – OhioSwimmin’ Time
  • Shovels & Rope – Mary Ann & One Eyed DanSwimmin’ Time
  • The Soil & The Sun – Human/MachineMeridian
  • Spoon – Rent I PayThey Want My Soul
  • Spoon – Rainy TaxiThey Want My Soul
  • Spoon – Knock Knock KnockThey Want My Soul
  • Spoon – They Want My SoulThey Want My Soul
  • Spoon – Let Me Be MineThey Want My Soul
  • Spoon – New York KissThey Want My Soul
  • St. Vincent – Huey NewtonSt. Vincent
  • St. Vincent – PsychopathSt. Vincent
  • St. Vincent – Severed Crossed FingersSt. Vincent
  • Sylvan Esso – Could I BeSylvan Esso
  • Sylvan Esso – DressSylvan Esso
  • Sylvan Esso – CoffeeSylvan Esso
  • Sylvan Esso – Play It RightSylvan Esso
  • Thievery Corporation – Firelight (Featuring Lou Lou Ghelichkhani)Saudade
  • Tiny Ruins – Me at the Museum, You in the WintergardensBrightly Painted One
  • Tiny Ruins – She’ll Be Coming ‘RoundBrightly Painted One
  • Tiny Ruins – Straw into GoldBrightly Painted One
  • Tiny Ruins – Ballad of the Hanging ParcelBrightly Painted One
  • Ty Segall – The ClockManipulator
  • Ty Segall – Don’t You Want to Know?(Sue)Manipulator
  • Woods – ShepherdWith Light and with Love
  • Woods – With Light and with LoveWith Light and with Love

My full list of favorite albums

  1. Kris Delmhorst – Blood Test
  2. Spoon – They Want My Soul
  3. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
  4. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  5. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
  6. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
  7. Bishop Allen – Lights Out
  8. Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits
  9. Shovels & Rope – Swimmin’ Time
  10. PHOX – PHOX
  11. Lulu Mae – Mean River
  12. Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean
  13. Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
  14. Saintseneca – Dark Arc
  15. Luluc – Passerby
  16. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
  17. Haley Bonar – Last War
  18. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
  19. Woods – With Light and with Love
  20. Tiny Ruins – Brightly Painted One
  21. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
  22. Frontier Ruckus – Sitcom Afterlife
  23. Elizabeth & The Catapult – Like It Never Happened
  24. Hospitality – Trouble
  25. Kat Edmonson – The Big Picture
  26. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
  27. Lost In The Trees – Past Life
  28. Wye Oak – Shriek
  29. The Black Keys – Turn Blue
  30. The Family Crest – Beneath The Brine
  31. Kishi Bashi – Lighght
  32. Mary Gauthier – Trouble & Love
  33. Justin Townes Earle – Single Mothers
  34. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Days Of Abandon
  35. Beck – Morning Phase
  36. Eleni Mandell – Let’s Fly A Kite
  37. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
  38. Sean Rowe – Madman
  39. The Gloaming – The Gloaming
  40. Orenda Fink – Blue Dream
  41. Elin Ruth – Queen of Queens & the Last Man Standing
  42. Imogen Heap – Sparks
  43. Joe Henry – Invisible Hour
  44. Natalie Merchant – Natalie Merchant
  45. Tennis – Ritual In Repeat
  46. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream
  47. Thievery Corporation – Saudade
  48. Ty Segall – Manipulator
  49. Quilt – Held in Splendor
  50. The Both – The Both
  51. Broken Bells – After the Disco
  52. Ingrid Michaelson – Lights Out
  53. Real Estate – Atlas
  54. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing…
  55. Mirah – Changing Light
  56. Marketa Irglova – Muna
  57. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Mended With Gold
  58. The Soil & The Sun – Meridian
  59. Laura Cantrell – No Way There From Here
  60. Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
  61. The Belle Brigade – Just Because
  62. Yasmine Hamdan – Ya Nass
  63. Quantic – Magnetica
  64. Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
  65. Amy LaVere – Runaway’s Diary
  66. Sarah McLachlan – Shine On
  67. Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
  68. Ages And Ages – Divisionary
  69. Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day
  70. Dawn Landes – Bluebird
  71. American Authors – Oh, What A Life
  72. Foxygen – …and Star Power
  73. tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack
  74. Eels – The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett
  75. Johnny A. – Driven

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…It was another year in which I listened to a lot of really good new music and didn’t write about it enough. In any case, out of about 90 new albums I listened to in 2014, here are my 25 favorites, determined by a precise formula of individual song ratings and listening counts.

Interestingly, American artists dominated the list, taking 18 of the 25 spots, but the top three spots were all taken by non-Americans (two English and one Irish). My interest in listening to female musicians continued, with 11 of the top 25 being either female solo artists or female-fronted bands. My list includes a husband and wife who each made the list with their own solo album and a pair of singers who made the list twice, once with the own band and once for their backing vocals on a different album.

1. Villagers – {Awayland}

I really enjoyed their first album, 2010’s Becoming A Jackal, which was really almost a solo project by Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien. With their second album, Villagers have truly become a band. Mostly gone are the simple acoustic songs of the first album and in its place we get a broader and more complex sound — it’s nice to see musicians exploring new territory and stepping out of their comfort zone. From start to finish, {Awayland} is a really satisfying album that constantly surprises.

The Bell — official video


2. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

For much of 2013, I was convinced that this album was destined to be my #1, but it was just edged out at the finish line. Doesn’t matter — this was a total masterpiece by Marling, who just manages to churn out album after album of deep compelling songs even though she’s still in her early 20s. The album starts with an arc of seven songs that just stream out in a continuous wave of emotion, centering on the best song among them, Master Hunter. I think I’ve said before that she is our time’s Joni Mitchell and this album was another exhibit proving that fact.

Master Hunter — live performance on Later…with Jools Holland


3. Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma

Just like Villagers, Stornoway had a 2010 debut album that I liked a lot and put out their second album in 2013. But in this case, Tales From Terra Firma is a lot like Beachcomber’s Windowsill, full of beautiful catchy alt-folk anchored by the voice of lead singer Brian Briggs.

The Great Procrastinator — live performance (a remarkably high quality fan video)


4. Frontier Ruckus – Eternity of Dimming

I was completely blown away by this album by a band I hadn’t heard of until this year. A very ambitious, lyrically dense, double album of quirky folk pop that just captivated me. I’m somewhat mystified why this album never took off more — maybe critics and listeners were a little turned off by singer-songwriter Matthew Milia’s nasal voice. But this album is just a treasure of creative lyrics and a theme of fading memories and nostalgia.

Eternity of Dimming — live performance of the title track from back in 2011


5. Volcano Choir – Repave

I’m not sure if Volcano Choir is a side project of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon or if Bon Iver is a side project of Volcano Choir‘s Justin Vernon. In either case, I find I like the music he produces with Volcano Choir a bit more — heavily autotuned vocals and, especially on a song like Comrade, a sound that starts from nothing and just builds and builds.

Comrade — live performance


6. Typhoon – White Lighter

Big, bold, complex, richly satisfying: it’s not a fine Belgian beer, it’s an album by an 11-member band from Portland, Oregon. I love the complicated arrangements that they put together. And based on the live performance below, they must be a phenomenal band to see live.

Hunger and Thirst — live performance at Brighton Music Hall (and why wasn’t I there???)


7. Nataly Dawn – How I Knew Her

Nataly Dawn made a name for herself with the duo Pomplamoose and here is her first solo album. Her music reminds me a bit of Regina Spektor — songs that tell stories in a deeply engaging way that’s hard to ignore. I was vaguely curious about this album at first, but I just kept going back to it.

Please Don’t Scream — video of recording session


8. KT Tunstall – Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon

In the midst of a list of albums full of exclamation points, here is something way different — quietly understated and reflective. Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall took off to the American Southwest to record something that was a step above the average break-up album.

Invisible Empire — live acoustic performance


9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

The album that everyone loved (by a large margin, it won the NPR Music audience poll) — and well they should. Indie pop that’s impossible to resist. This was a reliable go-to album for me throughout the year.

Unbelievers — well-made lyric video


10. Boy – Mutual Friends

Technically, this is really a 2011 release by a German/Swiss duo, but it was not released in the US until February 2013, so I’m counting it as a 2013 album for me. Super-accessible pop that I just thoroughly enjoyed.

Little Numbers — official video shot in Barcelona


11. Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends

An inspired collaboration of this indie rock band and super-producer Dangermouse that was my favorite thing to listen to in the car on the way home from work — great escapist rock with tons of energy.

Evil Friends — official video


12. Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

I can’t believe I never managed to stumble upon Josh Ritter’s music until this year, when he released his fifth album. Here’s a really engaging folk-pop singer-songwriter who writes great songs. New Lover is a great example — he’s moving on from a relationship and he’s not bitter about it, until the last few lines show that, well, maybe he still is a little bitter.

New Lover — official lyrics video


13. Daughter – If You Leave

Shoe-gazy pop from an English band that produced one of my absolute favorite songs of 2013, Youth. Great singer, great sound, sad lyrics — it’s a combination that never goes out of style.

Youth — live performance on KEXP Seattle


14. Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost

Sam Beam, performing under the name Iron & Wine, is yet another singer-songwriter who produced great music this year. Some long-time fans don’t like Ghost On Ghost as much as his earlier work, but I actually prefer this — it’s more complex musically and that complexity is nicely demonstrated in the song Lover’s Revolution.

Lovers’ Revolution — lyrics video


15. Lucius – Wildewoman

Lucius, anchored by their co-lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, produced their first album this year, after an EP last year. Infectious indie pop with heavy bass and percussion and another band that’s supposed to be very fun to see live. Wolfe and Laessig also play a key part in #18 below.

Turn It Around — live performance on KEXP Seattle


16. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

People raved about Jason Isbell for a long time before I finally gave Southeastern a listen and was not disappointed. Isbell wins my 2013 “country music for people who don’t like country music” (CMFPWDLCM) award with this album of beautiful storytelling. Elephant, a heartbreaking song about a barfly dying of cancer is a fine example of what Isbell does here.

Elephant — live performance on SiriusXM


17. Lucy Wainwright Roche – There’s a Last Time for Everything

Daughter of Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright III, she proves herself very much worthy of her folk-music pedigree. Great voice and great songwriter, but I kept being drawn to the sole cover on the album, an absolutely inspired acoustic version of Robyn’s dance pop hit Call Your Girlfriend.

Call Your Girlfriend — video of recording session


18. San Fermin – San Fermin

I enjoyed San Fermin for a lot of the same reasons I loved Typhoon: intricate, almost operatic, songs created by a large ensemble of musicians. But this album has a very different origin. It was conceived and composed by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who brought in studio musicians, including singers Allen Tate, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, to execute his vision. Because this isn’t a “band” in the traditional sense, this may be a one-off project, but I hope to hear more from Ludwig-Leone in the future.

Methuselah — live, with other singers filling in for Wolfe and Laessig on their parts (Ellis Ludwig-Leone is the guy playing keyboards)


19. Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Absolutely the most over-hyped album of the year, a double album based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a little hard to set aside all the noise surrounding this album and just focus on the music — “indie” bands striking it big tend to make inviting targets for ridicule and the band were often their own worst enemy. But this is a solid album of rock with dance overtones that proved worthy of a spot in my top 20.

Reflektor — official video


20. The Head And The Heart – Let’s Be Still

The Head and the Heart may be the anti-Arcade Fire, though I looked forward to both of their albums equally. I loved the first Head and the Heart album and this one is just as good, full of crowd-pleasing, rootsy and rocky folk pop.

Shake — official video


21. Amanda Shires – Down Fell The Doves

Amanda Shires gets edged out by her husband Jason Isbell for this year’s coveted CMFPWDLCM (“country music for people who don’t like country music”) award, but she still manages to grab a spot in my top 25 with this engaging album of folk-pop-country. Yet another singer-songwriter who’s worth keeping an eye and ear out for.

Bulletproof — live performance


22. Laura Stevenson – Wheel

This one came out of nowhere for me. It was released in April, but I didn’t stumble upon it until November. I know almost nothing about her, but I really enjoyed this album of folk pop and it managed to sneak into my top 25 at the last moment.

The Move — live performance


23. Hey Marseilles – Lines We Trace

Did I say The Head and the Heart were the anti-Arcade Fire? Maybe Hey Marseilles is. Like THATH, Hey Marseilles produced their second album after a debut that I really enjoyed several years ago. This is quintessential music by musicians who clearly like making music, multi-instrumental folk pop that I like a lot.

Heart Beats — official video


24. Tennis – Small Sound (EP)

Tennis is one of those bands that’s all about the interplay of a great singer (Alaina Moore) and a great guitarist (Patrick Riley). The result is a very poppy sound combining girl-group vocals with surf guitars that I find incredibly infectious. After I enjoyed last year’s Young & Old, I was happy to find this EP and I assume a full-length album will be coming out soon.

Timothy — very lame audio-only “video” but it’s a great song


25. Eleanor Friedberger – Personal Record

While I’m disappointed that a bunch of very good albums just failed to make the cut, I’m so glad to see Eleanor Friedberger grab the 25th and final spot on my list. This is just straight-ahead fun pop rock by another singer-songwriter with a knack for crafting a pop hook. There’s nothing grandly ambitious here, just enjoyable music to get you through the day.

Stare at the Sun – official video


Honorable Mentions

I listened to some other really good albums in 2013 that for a variety of reasons just failed to make my top 25 list. Some highlights of good albums that just missed the cut:

  • Vienna Teng — Aims
  • Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
  • Erin McKeown — Manifestra
  • Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse
  • Alela Diane — About Farewell
  • Foxygen — We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic
  • Bettie Serveert — Oh, Mayhem!
  • The National — Trouble Will Find Me
  • Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
  • Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up From Bones
  • Camera Obscura — Desire Lines
  • Valerie June — Pushin’ Against A Stone
  • Eels — Wonderful, Glorious
  • Emiliana Torrini — Tookah
  • Laura Veirs — Warp & Weft

OK, onward to 2014!

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I’m vowing to resume blogging about music after a long break. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I’ve enjoyed so far in 2013. In no particular order:

  • Erin McKeown – Manifestra
  • Frontier Ruckus – Eternity of Dimming
  • Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
  • Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common
  • Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
  • Hey Marseilles – Lines We Trace
  • Robyn Hitchcock – Love from London
  • Josh Ritter – The Beast in Its Tracks
  • Villagers – {Awayland}
  • Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost
  • Nataly Dawn – How I Knew Her
  • Stornoway – Tales from Terra Firma
  • Eels – Wonderful, Glorious
  • Bettie Serveert – Oh, Mayhem!

I’m also eagerly awaiting a bunch of new releases that are forthcoming, from Laura Marling, Camera Obscura, Eleanor Friedberger, KT Tunstall, Sigur Rós, plus a new Neko Case album that doesn’t have a release yet, but it is supposedly coming out this year.

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Favorite Songs of 2012

One more item to wrap up my 2012 in music: a rundown of my favorite songs of 2012. I created five playlists, each just tight enough to squeeze onto an 80-minute CD. Each playlist is in no particular order. Now, on to 2013!

Best of 2012 – Rocky

  1. Serpents – Sharon Van Etten from Tramp
  2. Hold On – Alabama Shakes from Boys & Girls
  3. A Simple Answer – Grizzly Bear from Shields
  4. Charmer – Aimee Mann from Charmer
  5. Jackson – Craig Finn from Clear Heart Full Eyes
  6. Used To Rule The World – Bonnie Raitt from Slipstream
  7. Pretty Girl From Michigan – The Avett Brothers from The Carpenter
  8. Pirates – Jenny Owen Youngs from An Unwavering Band of Light
  9. The Way You Were Raised – Admiral Fallow from Tree Bursts in Snow
  10. North Side Gal – J.D. McPherson from Signs & Signifiers
  11. Big Parade – The Lumineers from The Lumineers
  12. Sidecar – Kathleen Edwards from Voyageur
  13. Generals – The Mynabirds from Generals
  14. Nothing To Remember – Neko Case from The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 And Beyond
  15. You As You Were – Shearwater from Animal Joy
  16. The Only Place – Best Coast from The Only Place
  17. Bend Beyond – Woods from Bend Beyond
  18. Eyeoneye – Andrew Bird from Break It Yourself
  19. Hey Jane – Spiritualized from Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Best of 2012 – Folky

  1. Dyin Day – Anais Mitchell from Young Man In America
  2. Guttersnipe – Bhi Bhiman from Bhiman
  3. Walk the Furrows – Bowerbirds from The Clearing
  4. Mahalla – Carolina Chocolate Drops from Leaving Eden
  5. Harder Before It Gets Easier – David Wax Museum from Knock Knock Get Up
  6. Bun In The Oven – Eleni Mandell from I Can See The Future
  7. Emmylou – First Aid Kit from The Lion’s Roar
  8. Empire Of Our State (featuring Emily Saliers) – Girlyman from Supernova
  9. Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed – Laura Gibson from La Grande
  10. Harlem Roulette – The Mountain Goats from Transcendental Youth
  11. Into Giants – Patrick Watson from Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  12. The Golden Age and the Silver Girl – Tyler Lyle from The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  13. Live And Die – The Avett Brothers from The Carpenter
  14. Venus – Anais Mitchell from Young Man In America
  15. The Fire – Laura Gibson from La Grande
  16. Chameleon/Comedian – Kathleen Edwards from Voyageur
  17. The Storm, It’s Coming – Glen Hansard from Rhythm And Repose
  18. Call Me the Breeze – Beth Orton from Sugaring Season
  19. September – The Shins from Port Of Morrow
  20. California – Tyler Lyle from The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  21. This Girl – Punch Brothers from Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Best of 2012 – Poppy

  1. Firewood – Regina Spektor from What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  2. Ghost – Ingrid Michaelson from Human Again
  3. All I Can – Sharon Van Etten from Tramp
  4. King of the World – First Aid Kit from The Lion’s Roar
  5. Lakeside View Apartments Suite – The Mountain Goats from Transcendental Youth
  6. All Alone – Fun. from Some Nights
  7. Friends Of Friends – Hospitality from Hospitality
  8. The Fish and the Bird – Sylvie Lewis from It’s All True
  9. Valle de Magnolias – Gaby Moreno from Postales
  10. Something More Beautiful – Beth Orton from Sugaring Season
  11. I’m Not The Same Without You – Donald Fagen from Sunken Condos
  12. Little Talks – Of Monsters And Men from My Head Is An Animal
  13. Robin – Tennis from Young & Old
  14. Greatest Revenge – The Mynabirds from Generals
  15. Never Ending Happening – Bill Fay from Life Is People
  16. Small Town Moon – Regina Spektor from What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  17. Magic Summertime – Eleni Mandell from I Can See The Future
  18. Mountain Sound – Of Monsters And Men from My Head Is An Animal
  19. Now Is The Start – A Fine Frenzy from Pines
  20. Cut The World – Antony & The Johnsons from Cut The World

Best of 2012 – Quirky

  1. Danse Caribe – Andrew Bird from Break It Yourself
  2. Garden – Lost In The Trees from A Church That Fits Our Needs
  3. Bright Whites – Kishi Bashi from 151a
  4. Stitch the Hem – Bowerbirds from The Clearing
  5. The Good Life (Is Wasted) – Lambchop from Mr. M
  6. Quiet Crowd – Patrick Watson from Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  7. The Forest Awakes – David Byrne & St. Vincent from Love This Giant
  8. Amanaemonesia – Chairlift from Something
  9. Gun Has No Trigger – Dirty Projectors from Swing Lo Magellan
  10. Manhattan – Cat Power from Sun
  11. Dark Star – Poliça from Give You The Ghost
  12. Walking On a Wire – The Casket Girls from Sleepwalking
  13. Valentine – Fiona Apple from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  14. This Dead Bird Is Beautiful – Lost In The Trees from A Church That Fits Our Needs
  15. Travelers – Bright Moments from Natives
  16. Marienbad – Julia Holter from Ekstasis
  17. Varúð – Sigur Rós from Valtari

Best of 2012 – Extras (basically the songs that wouldn’t fit onto the other four CDs and that I couldn’t bear to leave out)

  1. Love Is Luck – The Walkmen from Heaven
  2. 40 Mark Strasse – The Shins from Port Of Morrow
  3. Fields Of Progeny – Great Lake Swimmers from New Wild Everywhere
  4. I Will Wait – Mumford & Sons from Babel
  5. Nothing Is The News – Damien Jurado from Maraqopa
  6. The Rumors Are True – David Wax Museum from Knock Knock Get Up
  7. High Hope – Glen Hansard from Rhythm And Repose
  8. Something Like Olivia – John Mayer from Born And Raised
  9. Please Be My Third Eye – La Sera from Sees The Light
  10. Missing – The xx from Coexist
  11. Sailingsong – A Fine Frenzy from Pines
  12. Broke – Sea Of Bees from Orangefarben
  13. Radio Song – Esperanza Spalding from Radio Music Society
  14. Video Games – Lana Del Rey from Born To Die
  15. Left Alone – Fiona Apple from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  16. Keep Your Heart Young – Brandi Carlile from Bear Creek
  17. Fire – Ingrid Michaelson from Human Again
  18. Myth – Beach House from Bloom
  19. Linda Mañana – Ondatrópica from Ondatrópica

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At last, my list of favorite albums of 2012. This was an odd year for me and music. I listened to a ton of new music, but this blog languished as I spent time learning to play guitar and just listening to music. It was not hard to identify what my favorite albums were, but ranking them was not easy — and singling one out as my #1 favorite was nearly impossible. But, it turns out that I just needed a method and that solved my dilemma. In retrospect, my #1 makes total sense to me now.

By listening to all my 2012 songs randomly and rating each one, I was able to rank all 86 albums I purchased this year. I then added a second value for how many times I listened to the album this year — this arguably provides an unfair benefit for albums released earlier in the year, but I wonder whether the song rating process benefits newer songs more.

In any case here’s my top 30 and honorable mentions, following by my complete list.

#1 : Laura Gibson – La Grande

A hauntingly beautiful album by soft-voiced alt-folk singer-songwriter Laura Gibson. I love everything about every moment of this album, from the drum-driven title track that opens it to the elegiac finale, Feather Lungs. Gibson may be the voice who inspired NPR Music to start the now wildly successful Tiny Desk Concerts series (basically to showcase understated musicians who need an intimate setting to showcase their work), but there is huge depth here and as she assures us in Lion/Lamb that “I am not a lamb/I am a lion.” Truly a masterpiece.

La Grande official video:

Feather Lungs live on KEXP (Seattle):

#2: Bowerbirds – The Clearing

Another album that was just strong from start to finish. Alt-folk with chamber folk tendencies, this North Carolina band produced an album of wonderfully complex songs with multiple layers. A great example is the opening track, Tuck the Darkness In, which exhibits one of my favorite song characteristics: starts quiet, gets loud.

Tuck the Darkness In official video:

Brave World live:

#3: First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

The best Americana album of the year just happens to have been produced by a pair of 20-something sisters from the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. This work by Johanna and Klara Söderberg fits just like an old shoe, instantly comfortable and essentially timeless. It’s fitting that in Emmylou, they name-check two great Americana couples: Johnny & June Carter Cash and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris.

The Lion’s Roar live on the streets of Paris:

Emmylou official video:

#4: Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur

A great album in the long list of great moving-on-from-a-breakup albums. This one has the interesting twist of being co-produced by Edwards and her new significant other Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The going and coming emotions of this album may be best summed up by Soft Place to Land and Sidecar.

Soft Place to Land live on CBC:

Sidecar live in a park:

#5: The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter

Can “country music for people who don’t like country music” be officially defined as a musical genre? Much like my reaction to First Aid Kit, I liked this album immediately and never stopped liking it. Fun music that just entertains. Oddly, I had the opposite reaction to the very similar Mumford & Sons, which left me cold even though it was widely acclaimed — go figure.

Live and Die official video:

#6: Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Really breathtaking piano-based pop of the lyrically rich variety. I was totally captivated by this album, with its many emotional high points — I even forgive the misstep that is Oh Marcello (Russian-American singer adopts really bad Italian accent for one song). Highlights for me were Firewood and How, plus the brilliant two and a half minute The Party.

Firewood song only:

#7: Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose

Proof that I’m capable of warming to a male singer-songwriter. This album of guitar-based folk-pop quietly smolders with emotion. It sounds like he and Marketa Irglova will be reuniting (musically though not romantically) for another Swell Season album soon. It seems clear to me from these songs that he’s found his muse in Marketa — almost every song he sings seems like it’s about her.

High Hope official video:

#8: Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

Hypertalented multi-instrumentalist delivers another album of complex and interesting folk-rock. Like Bowerbirds, Bird proves that fascinating and multilayered music can also be thoroughly enjoyable — it’s art and it’s entertainment. Danse Caribe is a great example: Bird plays his amped violin in multiple ways in the same song and the whole thing just rocks.

Danse Caribe live on KCRW:

#9: Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal

Ultra accessible power pop from Iceland that made a big splash in 2012. Good timesy sound, singalong choruses, male-female vocalists, hooks a-plenty — lots here to like. I knew this band had made it big with their debut album when I saw they were playing a feature about the band on a bank of TVs at a Best Buy I was walking through.

Little Talks live:

#10: Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard

Like Andrew Bird, a talented musician produces a wonderfully complex album of intricate folk-rock. Each song appears to be carefully crafted, following its own course at its own pace to its own conclusion. This is far from a solo album — Watson’s impossibly high voice anchors things, but he’s got a strong band backing him too.

Into Giants live:

#11: Beth Orton – Sugaring Season

A late release that managed to make it way up the list, thankfully. Orton has said she nearly gave up on music after her last album, but I’m glad to see she’s sticking with it. I love her trio of earlier albums, Trailer Park, Central Reservation, and Daybreaker, but this one may have topped those. Quiet reflective music that deepens with each listen.

Something More Beautiful official video:

#12: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Yes, the title is a little annoying, but like Regina Spektor’s, this album is impossible to ignore or forget. Like Jesca Hoop way down at #55, Apple is clearly serving a demanding muse (one that asks her to wear a rubber octopus on her head, if the video below is any indication), but the results here are more accessible while just as uncompromising.

Every Single Night official video:

#13: A Fine Frenzy – Pines

An ambitious indie pop concept album about a tree contemplating its future from Alison Sudol, aka A Fine Frenzy. I think there are moments when her reach exceeds her grasp, but overall this is an excellent album that really demands a complete listen without interruption or distraction.

Now is the Start official video:

#14: Lost In The Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

I’m a little sad to see this fall to #14, frankly. A brilliant tribute to band leader Ari Picker’s mother that’s got more emotional depth than a carton of albums. Chamber folk at its best — pushing musical boundaries and always challenging their listeners. How many bands out there boast two cellists?

This Dead Bird is Beautiful live:

#15: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

This album is a milestone for Van Etten, who proves she’s more than a confessional solo artist, but is capable fronting a fully fledged rock band. Her songs lose none of their emotional depth, but now pack a sonic punch. I can’t wait to see where her continued transformation takes her.

All I Can live:

#16: The Mynabirds – Generals

The most outspokenly political album that I was aware of this year. Laura Burhenn, fresh from touring as the keyboardist for Bright Eyes, produces a feminist manifesto that rocks.

Generals live:

#17: The Shins – Port Of Morrow

I’m struggling to find words for this one. Simple and highly effective pop-rock that doesn’t blow you away with its brilliance, but just entertains. Clearly, there’s craftsmanship underneath, but this album for me is all about accessibility — just sit back and enjoy.

The Rifle’s Spiral official video:

#18: Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America

If the Mynabirds had the most outspoken political album, this one may be the most understated political album. Mitchell subtly tells stories that mostly focus on the joys and sorrows of rural life. Folk with a quiet message.

Young Man In America live with good sound, bad video (hey, it’s radio):

#19: Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again

The nice thing about a January release is that it’s possible to rediscover it many times throughout the year. This is wonderful indie pop (or as “indie” as you get with an album that was featured at Whole Foods) with a vulnerable core — a more accessible version of Fiona Apple (but maybe the comparison is unfair to both of them).

Blood Brothers live on Conan:

#20: The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

During a two-decade career, mostly as a solo artist by more recently as a band (but always under the Mountain Goats name), John Darnielle has created absorbing stories of people in the shadows, sung with a fierce urgency and intense empathy that is breathtaking. The opening line of the first song here, a tribute to Amy Winehouse titled Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1, pretty much sums up this album: “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.”

Harlem Roulette explained and performed live in Brooklyn:

#21: Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future

Another longtime singer-songwriter who just keeps at it, recording this album while pregnant with twins. There are softer edges here than her previous albums — she’s still a great songwriter, but maybe a little more content. After loving Eleni Mandell for years, I was very grateful to be able to see her live this year in a solo show at Passim in Harvard Square.

Magic Summertime official video (with a so Eleni ending):

#22: Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow

A Scottish power pop band that I’ve grown to love. After their 2011 debut, Boots Met My Face, they avoid any sophomore slump with a strong followup. Has a lot in common with Of Monsters and Men and The New Pornographers — lots of instruments involved (including flute and clarinet) and catchy as you could ever want.

Isn’t This World Enough?? live:

#23: Tennis – Young & Old

I was pretty shocked to see this album show up so high in my rankings, but the numbers don’t lie. And it makes total sense. Though I’d forgotten about this album, another listen showed me what I like so much about it: female lead vocalist, catchy pop hooks, jangly/fuzzy guitars — they are a carbon copy of Velocity Girl, a late-90s band that I loved until they disappeared after three great albums.

It All Feels the Same live on David Letterman:

#24: Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl

Enjoyable acoustic folk that just works for me. This one came out of the blue, but he earned his spot with a debut album that rose above the thousands of other young singer songwriters out there.

Love is Not Enough official video:

#25: David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up

A fun and catchy album of folk pop with a bit of a Mexican accent tossed in. Leaders David Wax and Suz Slezak put together an unusual sound that nonetheless works really well. Schedule conflicts have stymied my efforts to see this Boston-based band live, though I hope that changes in 2013.

Harder Before It Gets Easier live:

#26: Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light

You’ve gotta love this woman’s attitude — engaging and charismatic, plus she creates music that absolutely rocks. Every time I played this album, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I just can’t figure out why she isn’t hugely popular — maybe in 10 years, with another half dozen albums under her belt, she’ll be in Eleni Mandell/Mountain Goats/Aimee Mann territory of survivor who just never hit it big.

Pirates song only:

#27: Gaby Moreno – Postales

I love how Moreno defies genre, wandering around ballads, rock, R&B, and jazz. Interestingly, the LA-based Guatemalan singer songwriter seems to be singing more in Spanish as her music career develops. In last year’s Illustrated Songs, she sang mostly in English. Here, every song is in Spanish. Amazing voice.

Valle de Magnolias song only:

#28: Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman

A wonderful discovery whom I’ll be watching closely from now on. Mix witty lyrics with a beautiful wide-ranged voice and you get an astounding singer-songwriter. On Guttersnipe, I always marvel at how he stretches the line in the chorus about “I’m well on my way to feeeeeeeeeeling fine.”

Guttersnipe official video:

#29: fun. – Some Nights

Maybe my indie cred takes a little hit with this one, but it was impossible not to enjoy this album. Much more than just the megahit We Are Young, this one just did everything right.

All Alone live:

#30: Aimee Mann – Charmer

Another survivor who keeps on producing solid music year after year. Master of bitingly witty lyrics with an ear for a catchy melody, this is great stuff. There’s even a duet with James Mercer of The Shins (Living a Lie).

Charmer official video:

Honorable Mentions

Lots of interesting albums fell short of my cut-off at 30, but many of them are still worthy of attention.

  • Chairlift – Something (#32)
    Retro-80s synth pop that I enjoyed a lot. Thanks to my niece who saw them at live SXSW and urged me to stick with them.
  • Hospitality – Hospitality (#33)
    Like Tennis, a hyper-poppy female-fronted band that I liked a lot, though I’d love to see them delve deeper emotionally. Still, a strong debut.
  • Grizzly Bear – Shields (#36)
    This is one I may find myself shaking my head about later — should have ended up higher on the list. Grizzly Bear made a lot of top-10 lists and it is clearly a quality album of complex prog-rock, but it’s a “grower” that’s still growing on me.
  • Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (#37)
    This may simply be a case of a few too many slow ballads that drew their score down, but when they turn up the heat there’s no one better. I like this band a lot and they deserve all the acclaim they’ve gotten.
  • Girlyman – Supernova (#39)
    A band that I like a lot that seems to make albums that I like less and less with each release. Their wonderful mix of folky/countrified close harmony is lots of fun, but maybe they feel stuck in a rut to me.
  • The Lumineers – The Lumineers (#41)
    Sorry to see this one drop so far, but it was probably squeezed out a bit by the Avett Brothers in the “good timesy countryish” category. This seems like a very fun band to see live.
  • Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True (#42)
    She may be the poster child of the disadvantages faced by later releases. This album came out in June, but I didn’t stumble upon it until November. Even though I loved it, she drifted down the list to 42. A charming singer-songwriter who’s definitely one to watch.
  • Kishi Bashi – 151a (#48)
    Really thrilling experimental pop by a wildly creative violinist/vocalist who’s got a bright future ahead of him.
  • Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built (#55)
    Jesca Hoop is one of those artists who I just know will one day produce an album that will knock all of our socks off. So far, she’s produced three very original albums that boast tons of creative fireworks and an admirable desire to push the envelope, but her masterpiece still awaits.
  • Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (#57)
    This is a case of an album that was brilliant at times, but had some songs that I just found tiresome — “hit and miss” gets penalized pretty badly by my system. But the creative energy of this group is something to behold. Unto Caesar, with its off-the-wall lyrics that eventually cause the backup singers to start questioning (“Uh, that didn’t make any sense, what you just said.”), was one of my favorite songs of the year.
  • Heartless Bastards – Arrow (#86)
    Here it is everyone: officially my least favorite album of 2012. The thing is, this is a pretty good album that I actually enjoy, but maybe my ranking method (rating random songs) just doesn’t do justice to something like this: low-key (but still loud) songs that work much better when played in album format. Erika Wennerstrom’s beyond-languid voice is probably not my cup of tea, but this album deserved better than dead last.

The complete list

  1. Laura Gibson – La Grande
  2. Bowerbirds – The Clearing
  3. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
  4. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
  5. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
  6. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  7. Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
  8. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
  9. Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
  10. Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  11. Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
  12. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  13. A Fine Frenzy -Pines
  14. Lost In The Trees -A Church That Fits Our Needs
  15. Sharon Van Etten -Tramp
  16. The Mynabirds -Generals
  17. The Shins – Port Of Morrow
  18. Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America
  19. Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
  20. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
  21. Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future
  22. Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow
  23. Tennis – Young & Old
  24. Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
  25. David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up
  26. Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light
  27. Gaby Moreno – Postales
  28. Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman
  29. Fun. – Some Nights
  30. Aimee Mann – Charmer
  31. Beach House – Bloom
  32. Chairlift – Something
  33. Hospitality – Hospitality
  34. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
  35. Bright Moments – Natives
  36. Grizzly Bear – Shields
  37. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
  38. Cat Power – Sun
  39. Girlyman – Supernova
  40. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
  41. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
  42. Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True
  43. Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere
  44. Sea Of Bees – Orangefarben
  45. Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos
  46. The Little Willies – For The Good Times
  47. Damien Jurado – Maraqopa
  48. Kishi Bashi – 151a
  49. Azure Ray – As Above So Below
  50. M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion
  51. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes
  52. Lambchop – Mr. M
  53. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
  54. Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
  55. Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built
  56. The Walkmen – Heaven
  57. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
  58. John Mayer – Born And Raised
  59. Shearwater – Animal Joy
  60. Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
  61. Sigur Rós – Valtari
  62. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
  63. Bill Fay – Life Is People
  64. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
  65. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
  66. The xx – Coexist
  67. Poliça – Give You The Ghost
  68. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
  69. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
  70. Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
  71. Best Coast – The Only Place
  72. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
  73. La Sera – Sees The Light
  74. Mumford & Sons – Babel
  75. Woods – Bend Beyond
  76. The Casket Girls – Sleepwalking
  77. Antony & The Johnsons – Cut The World
  78. J.D. McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
  79. Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society
  80. Ondatrópica – Ondatrópica
  81. Bob Dylan – Tempest
  82. Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
  83. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Here
  84. Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
  85. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
  86. Heartless Bastards – Arrow

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…Here’s the final installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011.

5. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Hyper intense alt folk from a charismatic 21 year old English singer songwriter who seems to be channeling Joni Mitchell. I bought this CD at the same time I bought the new Feist and Marling’s music just overwhelmed the other CD in getting my attention.

Here she performs Sophia on Later… With Jools Holland. I love listening to her music, but she does have a strangely subdued stage presence that doesn’t match her music. But this is a great song.

4. Wye Oak – Civilian

Dreamy noise pop cooked up by a duo from Baltimore. Like the St. Vincent, this is a perfect combo of edgy artistry, excellent songwriting, and pop sensibility.

This video shows them playing an acoustic version of Civilian on the balcony of an Amsterdam hotel. “I am nothing without pretend” is just a great opening line for a song.

3. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

A folk rock band I dearly love came out with a great collection of songs this year. More influenced by American folk styles than their more British folk-influence earlier albums, this CD including a guest appearance by Gillian Welch.

Here’s a really good Lord of the Flies-themed video for the song This Is Why We Fight.

2. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

A one of a kind musician produces an album that’s just flat out unlike anything else out there right now — with long songs that develop at their own pace with a unifying winter theme. Even though she is way less hyperkinetic as she once was, this is still unmistakably Kate, with a 13-minute long song (Misty) about a tryst with a snowman — it doesn’t end well.

I’d love to post a live performance, but the famously reclusive Kate hasn’t been on a stage in a long time — her last appearance may have been when she joined David Gilmour on stage for one song in 2002. Here’s a very nicely done fan video for Snowflake, featuring guess vocals by Kate’s 12 year old son Bertie.

1. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

Each of the my top 6 flirted with being #1, but Bright Eyes prevailed because it was the most ambitious thematically. This album succeeds on two levels, both as a very enjoyable collection of songs and as a deep exploration of the meaning of life. Ultimately, the answer that Conor Oberst comes up with is that we are meant to break down the barriers between each other — as he puts it in the final song “You and Me/That is an awful lie/It’s I and I.”

Here are two live videos of the final two songs of the album. The first is an audience recording of Oberst performing Ladder Song and the second is a professional video of the full band doing One For You, One For Me at the close of a concert in Austin in September.

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…Here’s the next installment of my 25* favorite albums of 2011.

10. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Somewhat odd, but intense and compelling folk rock from John Darnielle. Where else will you get a wistful song told from the perspective of the Neanderthals (Sourdoire Valley Song) as well as tributes to Charles Bronson, Judy Garland, and Liza Minnelli?

Here, Darnielle and his band performs Prowl Great Cain live.

9. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning

Yes, another female singer-songwriter, but Amanda Shires produced a beautiful collection of alt-country (or country folk) songs this year. Consistently strong from start to finish.

This is her entire NPR Tiny Desk concert, where she performs Swimmer…, Shake the Walls, and When You Need a Train It Never Comes.

8. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Hard to describe prog rock from St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) that often teeters on the edge of going completely out of control and yet has plenty of pop hooks. Another “grower” that gradually seduced me completely.

Here’s the official (and oh, so strange) video for Cruel. You gotta admire an artist who can play a guitar solo from inside a car’s trunk while being kidnapped — too bad about her getting buried alive at the end. Great song, though.

7. Admiral Fallow – Boots Met My Face

Power pop from a wonderful Scottish group — fun listening that I never got tired of. This deserved a lot more attention than it seems to have gotten.

This is a live performance of These Barren Years in Glasgow.

6. Wilco – The Whole Love

The best album in a while from the definitive alt-country band. I particular like the way this album is bookended by two songs (Art of Almost and One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)) that just sprawl rather than wrapping up neatly. This one is due for a longer review from me shortly.

I love this video of them performing Art of Almost on David Letterman. I thought network TV wanted every song to be finished within 4 minutes, so it’s refreshing that they let them do this great song in its entirety, including a raucous finish.

Tomorrow: #5 to #1

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